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Tennessee defensive back Alontae Taylor (2) warms up before an NCAA college football game against Alabama, Saturday, Oct. 23, 2021, in Tuscaloosa, Ala. (AP Photo/Vasha Hunt)

KNOXVILLE — It didn't sound like a question certain to receive a thought-provoking response.

Mainly because the Tennessee football team was off last week, the first question to senior defensive back Alontae Taylor had nothing to do with this Saturday night's visit to No. 18 Kentucky, but rather what he accomplished during the off-week and what he did apart from football that he enjoyed.

This is where most athletes through the years — be they Vols or college players in general — have usually spoken of heading home for a weekend of mom's cooking, catching up on some sleep, watching football as fans, or maybe taking in their high school team's game. Nothing dramatic, save the fact that except for the Big State U. they represent on Saturdays, they're pretty much like everybody else.

But that was not how Taylor began his answer, other than to touch on a heretofore touchy subject that may be, deep down, pretty much like everybody else has experienced at one time or another whether we're willing to admit it or not.

"The biggest accomplishment I had was getting away from sports for a little bit," Taylor replied less than 12 seconds after first appearing at the podium. "I've kind of been down a little bit mentally. So I worked on my mental health a little bit."

Mental health has been in the news the past few months more than ever before. Maybe it's the emotional and mental stress of the coronavirus pandemic and all it's done to overwhelm us on all fronts. Maybe, too, hopefully, that discussion is something more lasting and positive regarding the need to permanently alter how we treat and define mental illness.

And if that be the case, if we become more sensitive and caring to those of us with mental struggles, high-profile athletes will almost certainly be referenced as a reason for our tardy enlightenment and concern on this issue.

Whether it was Olympic gymnast Simone Biles, professional tennis player Naomi Osaka or, just this week, Atlanta Falcons wide receiver Calvin Ridley, the former Alabama Crimson Tider, taking a break from their respective sports to focus on their mental health, we're learning that not all that glitters is golden.

Sometimes the price of fame and public adoration turns dark and painful and destructive. Too much pressure too much of the time.

Or as Taylor said. "Athletes have mental problems as well as people who don't play sports. We're not just a robot. We actually go through things outside of football."

Fortunately, the UT program, like so many colleges and universities throughout the country, has qualified folks on the payroll to help with such issues.

"It's not something that's easy to talk about," said Taylor. "We kind of talk about it with each other, but we don't always reach out to the resources we have. I've taken the step to reach out to the resources we have at the university and it's been very helpful."

Almost all of us need such help at some point, whether or not we are ever willing to do something about it. According to John Hopkins' website — hopkinsmedicine.org — an estimated 26% of Americans ages 18 and older — about 1 in 4 adults — suffers from a diagnosable mental disorder in a given year. That same site says many people suffer from more than one mental disorder at a given time. Approximately 9.5% of American adults ages 18 and over, will suffer from a depressive illness (major depression, bipolar disorder, or dysthymia) each year.

Apply those numbers to a major college football team and as many as 25 to 30 players — including walk-ons — could be in need of counseling, treatment or both in a particular season. Beyond that, on a campus the size of UT-Knoxville, that means as many as 7- to 8,000 of the 31,000 undergrad and grad students could easily be dealing with some form of mental stress.

But Taylor also quite rightly sees the public actions of Biles, Osaka, Ridley and others as an important trend.

"As more and more athletes continue to talk about it and show that side of them, maybe (the public) will start treating us more as actual humans and not just a player on the field who has everything put together and can just play football and do school as if it was so simple," he said.

No, the only thing simple about attempting to understand anyone's life is that not much about it is simple at all. And the quicker we all begin to accept that and embrace that, the better off all of society will be.

Contact Mark Wiedmer at mwiedmer@timesfreepress.com.

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